Catching a sailfish is on the bucket list of just about every angler, and South Florida is one of the best places in the world to achieve that goal this time of year.
Sailfish swim south for the winter, so the odds of catching one in the waters off Miami-Dade and Monroe counties are excellent. Boosting those odds is that it doesn’t take a lot of experience or fancy equipment to catch a sailfish.
Although tournament anglers will go out on their speedy center-console boats or big sportfishermen with 12 dozen live baits and fly two fishing kites, each with three fishing lines, sailfish are routinely caught on dead baits drifted from party boats. Even anglers in kayaks catch sailfish in South Florida.
“Realistically, if a guy with no knowledge whatsoever took two 20-pound outfits and fished the color change with live herring or live pilchards from the end of February until the end of May, I would be disappointed if he didn’t catch a sailfish almost every time he went,” Capt. Bouncer Smith said.
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Smith, who runs charters on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 out of Miami Beach Marina, typically heads offshore with live baitfish — in addition to herring and pilchards he’ll use goggle-eyes, sardines, blue runners and mullet — and fishes where the water goes from green to blue. That color change, which is typically in 75 to 200 feet of water, attracts baitfish. The baitfish attract sailfish as well as other species such as kingfish, dolphin and tuna.
For the novice angler, Smith recommended using a 20-pound spinning outfit with a 50-pound leader made of fluorocarbon, which is invisible in the water. The leader is tied to a 7/0 or 6/0 light-wire VMC circle hook, which is placed behind a bait’s head. Smith’s favorite sailfish bait is a threadfin herring, but if you can’t catch or buy them, he said the next-best bait for someone with a smaller boat is a pilchard, the bigger the better. He puts one bait 150 feet behind the boat and the other bait 75 feet from boat.
After a bait is in the water, the bail of the reel is left open and the line is secured in a release clip attached to the rod or by some telephone wire wrapped around the rod at the reel seat. That way the line doesn’t come off the reel until a fish eats the bait.
“Drift from the color change to a couple hundred feet off the color change or bump the boat in and out of gear and stay right on the color change,” Smith said. “When a sailfish bites, he’ll pull the line off the telephone wire or clip. Count to five, close your bail and start to wind and that’s all it takes to hook a sailfish.”
Serious sailfish anglers fish at least four and often six kite lines at a time. The lines are attached to a fishing kite, which gets the baits away from the boat. The kite also allows the baits to splash on the surface, which gets the attention of sailfish. In addition, anglers will put out several flat lines.
Those anglers use 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders and small circle hooks, which make a bait appear to be swimming freely and naturally. On a good day, it’s not uncommon for a boat to hook three or four sailfish at a time and catch a total of 20 or more.
That’s a dramatic change in fishing tactics compared to when Capt. Richard Stanczyk was running charters out of Miami’s famed Pier 5. Stancyzk said Buddy Carey, who was a pioneering offshore captain, set the standard for the charter dock by catching “at least five sailfish a day” trolling strips of bonito on heavy outfits with wire leaders.
“The thought of terminal tackle affecting the way a sailfish might bite never even entered our mind,” Stanczyk said. “Of course, if we had known what we know today, the number of sailfish we would’ve been catching back then would have been astounding.”
Capt. Wayne Conn recalled how he and Jerry Webb downsized from 80-pound leaders to 50-pounder leaders in the 1980s to win the Miami Billfish Tournament. Conn now uses 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders with 4/0 circle hooks when he runs sailfish charters on Legacy, a 37-foot express fisherman. And he always puts a bait down 50 feet on a weighted line when he’s kite-fishing.
“I don’t know how many times we’d catch the first fish on a bait that we put down,” Conn said. “When that fish was jumping, there’d be four or five or six lit-up sailfish behind the boat.
“These fish, when they’re moving through, as soon as you hook one, and he’s up and dancing, those other fish are going to come up and look around.”
Stanczyk, who owns Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, said that anglers towing their 30-foot center consoles to the Keys in the hopes of catching sailfish need to kite-fish with goggle-eyes, cigar minnows, herring or pilchards in the right depth, which is typically 90-150 feet. But if sailfish are feeding on ballyhoo, don’t bother flying a kite, just bump troll with live ballyhoo.
“Put four ballyhoos out on 40-pound fluorocarbon leader and 7/0 circle hooks and that can often be your best bait in the Florida Keys,” Stanczyk said. “Sailfish chase them into shallow water, and that’s the day you really want to have the ballyhoo in the boat. I have seen days when that’s all they’ll eat.”
For Smith, seeing a sailfish get ready to eat one of his baits is something he never tires of, which is why he loves fishing off Miami.
“That sailfish pops up behind the bait, turns black and the adrenaline goes pumping like crazy,” Smith said. “I’ve done it full time almost 52 years and I caught my first sailfish 61 years ago, and it’s still uncontrollable excitement when I see one. It’s just an unbelievable thrill.”